SCBWI CONFERENCE 2019 A Page on stage

What's it like to stand up before hundreds of your peers and get feedback on your precious first pages? Alexandra Page recounts her experience before an illustrious panel of industry professionals at November 2019's SCBWI conference.

At this year’s SCBWI British Isles conference, I cringed as the first page of my middle grade novel was flashed up in front of an auditorium of SCBWIs and a critique panel including editor Bella Pearson (Guppy Books), Becky Bagnell (Lindsay Literary Agency) and author Benjamin Scott (Star Fighters series).
Six of us were lucky enough to have our opening paragraphs read aloud by the sonorous, wonderfully characterful voice of George Kirk; followed by constructive feedback on our stories and on first pages in general.

The trick of a great story opening, it seems, is to intrigue your reader without disorientating them. 

Intriguing Your Reader

The panel discussed some of the ways in which first pages can hook a reader into the story, which ranged from shocking, visual openers and interesting characters to dropping in intriguing objects, hints or clues. Often, they said, simplicity and clarity work best.

Anything which intentionally piques a reader’s interest must become relevant quickly, within the first chapter or two. Conversely, don’t explain it immediately or you will kill the intrigue!

Even a first page can introduce well-rounded, engaging characters. One brilliant first page used juxtaposition to great effect. The reflections of one character on another can do a lot of work for you in this regard; how does your main character feel about the actions of the character(s) around them?

The panel: Bella Pearson, Becky Bagnell and Benjamin Scott.
(Picture credit: Elizabeth Frattaroli.)
Keep passages active rather than passive. Try putting yourself in your character’s position to see how they feel. Action must also have clear motivation. It’s no good just having characters doing things, what are they trying to achieve?

Benjamin stressed setting up a dilemma; give your character(s) an active choice to make (however small – it could be choosing socks) that reveals something telling about them. And, avoid too much dialogue. Show and reveal a character through action rather than have them say who they are and what they’re doing.

Ask yourself, do I really need this dialogue?

Orienting Your Reader

Becky introduced us to the concept of ‘Who, What, Where, Why, When?’ A good opening needs to answer most, if not necessarily all, of these questions.

A lot of people grabbed their pens at this point, it sounded so simple! Sadly Becky didn’t have much time to elaborate during the panel, but luckily she sat at my lunch table. So, in between bites of pudding, I asked her more about it. She instantly delved into her bag and pulled out examples of first pages from bestselling and classic stories which she had marked up and highlighted, showing where the ‘Who, What, Where, Why, When’ questions had (or in some cases hadn’t) been answered, and explained a little more.

Who are your characters?

What is happening? What was your character doing before this?

Where are we? Be clear what sort of world or story we’re in. Where is your character positioned within the setting?

Why is your character doing what they’re doing?

When is this happening? What was going on beforehand?

Benjamin Scott (seated) looks on while George Kirk gets ready to read.
(Picture credit: Elizabeth Frattaroli.)
Not all of these answers have to be present on the first page, but most should. And the more extraordinary the world of your story, the more crucial these become.

Becky’s prepared examples included The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and Danny the Champion of the World. She did say not all successful stories follow this – in fact, many famous opening pages answer none! But if you do exclude them, then make it a conscious decision.

Once home, I grabbed two books at random off my bookshelf and copied her exercise:

Charlotte’s Web, E.B White

Who? Fern is a little girl aged eight who immediately takes action to save the life of a piglet.

What? A piglet is about to be slaughtered with an axe! Before this, Fern was helping her mother set the table for breakfast.

Where? A farm, indicated by the axe, hog-house, pitcher of cream, wet grass and the family name ‘Arable’. Fern is at the kitchen table, before running outside.

Why? Fern tells her papa killing the piglet is 'unfair'.

When? The chapter is titled ‘Before Breakfast’. It is springtime.

Anna at War, Helen Peters

Who? Daniel is in Year 6. He has a granny.

What? Daniel is at school, starting to study WW2 as a topic.

Where? A classroom in England.

Why? Daniel is excited about the topic. When the class are asked if they know anyone who lived through the Second World War, he raises his hand; only to feel embarrassed that he knows so little about his granny’s past and isn’t sure about how or why she first came to England. The answer is bound to be something exciting and mysterious, from the chapter title: ‘A Letter from the Secret Service’.

When? Present day.

First pager: Alexandra Page.

We were advised to avoid using too many fantastical or unfamiliar words, terms or names, particularly in quick succession. We react to words we know, but without enough familiarity or context, any reaction in the reader is lost.

Keep viewpoints consistent; don’t head hop unless you intend to tell your story with multiple narrators or perspectives.

Final Tips

Recognise when you are using your author’s voice rather than your character’s voice. Set aside pretention, ego, the writing ‘rules’ we get told at school and channel deep into your character. Humour exacerbates pathos. Book titles are not a huge concern. The panel thought perhaps only 10 to 20 per cent of titles stay the same from submission to publication.

As one of the lucky six, I’m immensely grateful to Bella, Becky and Benjamin for their feedback and wisdom, and especially Becky for having taken the time to answer my questions afterwards.

*Header image: Elizabeth Frattaroli.


Alexandra Page grew up between England and Zimbabwe, making up stories to entertain her younger sisters and brother. After studying English Literature she settled in London and worked for several years in the production departments at Penguin, Puffin and Walker Books, before becoming a freelance project manager in order to have more time to write. She loves to travel, swim and spend time with her husband and daughter in her favourite city, Budapest. Alexandra is represented by Christabel McKinley at David Higham Associates. 


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